Soldiers travel to remote Alaska village, honor World War II veteran
September 28, 2012
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska (September 28, 2012) An icon of the Alaska trapping community and Interior, an adventurer and a man highly respected by all, was remembered by family and friends at a memorial ceremony at the village of Healy Lake, population 13, this past Aug. 18th.
Twelve Soldiers from the Brigade Troops Battalion, 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team and one from the 9th Army Band traveled by Army helicopter to Healy Lake to honor Paul Kirsteatter, a World War II veteran with a very unique story.
Kirsteatter not only served in North Africa and Alaska during the war, he had the unique experience of being captured by German forces while supporting the French resistance and was subsequently rescued by French Partisan forces and smuggled back to North Africa through Spain.
Following his discharge from the Army in 1945, Kirsteatter decided to make Alaska his home.
Kirsteatter was born Aug. 17, 1922, in Illinois and spent his early years helping his father drive cattle from New Mexico across the border into Mexico. He enlisted in the Army upon the start of World War II and was discharged in 1945.
During WWII Kirsteatter, a member of an Anti-Armor company, was stationed in Algiers, attached to British forces. Not happy being assigned to support British forces, Paul took advantage of time spent at an abandoned French Foreign Legion airstrip to volunteer to work with U.S. forces. Every few days a U.S. cargo aircraft would fly out of the airfield. One day he and his friend were asked if they wanted to volunteer for a secret mission. Because of the sensitive nature of the mission, Paul and his friend were given no details about what exactly they would be doing or where they would be doing it. They were also not introduced to the flight crew so they didn't even know who they were on the mission with. All they were told was that they would ride in the back of a cargo airplane and when the green light came on by the door, they were to push crates of supplies out the door. Easy mission; they would be back by the next day.
They agreed and off they went. As it turns out, the mission was a resupply mission in support of the French Underground. Unfortunately for Paul and the crew, the mission was compromised by German forces on the ground. The Germans captured the resistance forces at the drop zone and made them give the "all-clear" drop signal, at which time Paul's plane made their drop run
and was subsequently shot down. As far as Kirsteatter knows, he and his buddy were the only survivors. As a result, Paul had no idea what country they were in or who the people on the ground were. He soon found out they were German soldiers and he was taken prisoner. After his capture, Paul was held in a farmhouse in France where he was chained to the floor in a
blacked-out room for some number of days, he doesn't know exactly how many.
During this time he was repeatedly interrogated and roughed up; the Germans would not believe that he had absolutely no knowledge of the mission he was on or who the other crew members were. As a result, they believed Paul was resisting interrogation so they tried hard to convince him to change his mind. While chained to the floor, Paul heard gunfire and explosions inside the house. The door to his room was kicked open and it was then that he learned he was in France. French resistance fighters had raided the house, killed the Germans and liberated Paul. He was subsequently smuggled out of France through the French Underground to Spain, where he was returned to North Africa. Because Paul had been a prisoner of war in the European Theater and had escaped through the French Underground network, Army policy
dictated he had to be sent to another theater of operation. As it turned out, Paul was reassigned to Alaska.
After being transferred to Alaska, Kirsteatter was assigned to a search and rescue/recovery team, where he learned about sled-dog operations. When aircraft went down in the bush, Kirsteatter and a pilot would fly about looking for it. If they found the wreckage, Kirsteatter was dropped off to recover the downed pilots with his sled-dog teams.
Upon discharge he worked as a trapper and market hunter in support of work crews on projects such as the Taylor Highway. His job at the remote campsites along the highway was to shoot game (such as Caribou, Dall sheep or whatever he could get) to feed the work crews as well as to protect the workers from bears, an especially challenging chore during mealtimes.
Another job on the Little Gerstle River Bridge changed his life. It was there he met Margaret, a member of the Healy Lake-Joseph band of Tanana Athabascans from the village of Healy Lake, located about 29 miles east of Delta Junction and not accessible by road.
Although she spoke very little English, they married and raised five children together - three of theirs, her daughter Josephine and Sarah Gossod, a niece on Margaret's side - in a tiny, one room cabin built by Kirsteatter with logs brought in on dog sled. They heated and cooked on a wood stove and Kirsteatter had no running water until long after his wife's death and the children were grown and gone. Margaret and her brother taught Kirsteatter to trap the Native way and from that point on he lived a true subsistence lifestyle. The family ate wild game and fish. While he was away trapping, Margaret would fish and hunt and do whatever else was required to keep the home fires burning.
"A lot of folks don't know that he once got 17 wolves in one snare (gang) set! Paul really knew how to think like a wolf and he knew that Goodpaster/40 Mile country as well as anyone," said Pete in Fairbanks on the blog at www.trapperman.com.
He raised some of the wolf pups to see how they would fare as dog teams for his long days and
many miles on the trapline in the vast 40 Mile Country. He trapped wolves, beaver and lynx. Kirsteatter wouldn't tell anyone how long he was going to be gone because he didn't want anyone to worry if he was delayed returning.
His friend Gary Nance said they walked all over the Interior looking for wolf dens and come spring they would collect them for a bounty.
Photos of Kirsteatter show a fit elderly man, slight - he stood about 5'9" tall and weighed about 150-160 pounds, said Col. Ronald M. Johnson, Fort Wainwright garrison commander, who met Kirsteatter through a mutual friend during his last tour here. Kirsteatter's photo shows bushy white eyebrows, white hair peeking out from his hat and a smile on his face. Even at 90
years old, his conversations taped by Nance indicate a sharp mind and good memory. The stories are peppered with colorful language as he related anecdotes about his days trapping and hunting and about old friends.
His daughter Dorothy Kirsteatter said she would always treasure the last days she got to spend with him.
"He was a good provider" she said "and took good care of us."
"We will miss him," especially his sense of humor, said his niece, Sarah Gorrod.
Mary Healy said that she "will miss his smile and the twinkle in his eyes. He was a wonderful, wonderful man," she said. "He was Healy Lake to us."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she had known Kirsteatter since the late 70s or early 80s. Her family had been coming out to Healy Lake since she was in high school.
"Paul was not only the patriarch of the lake," she said "He was the guardian, he was the guide, he was really the man who held everything together."
"The old story been there, done that - well, Paul had done it all," said his friend Randy Zarnke.
Johnson spent time with Paul out on his trapline near where the Native village of Joseph was once located (in the 40 Mile River country) and at his cabin at Healy Lake. "Paul was a national and a state treasure. He truly embraced the Alaskan lifestyle and was probably one of the last survivors of the era of true Interior bushman," Johnson said. "It was an honor to get to know a man like that and to be able to call him friend. Besides the personal loss of his passing, his passing is sad because it marks the end of an era. I think he was one of the last old-time
Alaskans who lived a true Interior Alaskan lifestyle.
"What was amazing about Paul," Johnson said, "was that he was one of the last of those
legendary Interior guys: Hard as nails, completely self-reliant, cut from a different cloth. original Alaskan pioneer. Even in his late 80s and 90s he could work a young man into the ground. He lived out on the trapline, survived, did all those things that people don't have the opportunity or
ability to do anymore, and he did it with his wife and children at the cabin in Joseph and at Healy Lake."
Author's note: Gary Nance, a friend of Kirsteatter's, spent many hours interviewing him about his life and shared the transcriptions of the recordings for this article. The information about his time in the Army and about his early years in Alaska came from Nance and Johnson and were related by others as well.